Responding to a report of animal cruelty, authorities found dozens of living and dead animals in a home infested with fleas, maggots and rotting carcasses. The owners — a woman and her adult son — were charged with animal cruelty.
"It has to be the worst case of animal abuse in the history of Vermont," according to Animal Control Officer Josephine Guertin.
Five cats, two ferrets, a lizard, a gecko, a rabbit, a python, a gerbil, a tarantula, a chinchilla, a guinea pig, a tortoise, a mouse and a malnourished dog were rescued. Found dead were an iguana, a white rat, a hedgehog and at least 15 cats and kittens in various stages of decomposition.
Also found was a decomposing animal of unknown type in a pot on a stove. More than a dozen partially frozen dead animals were found in a refrigerator freezer.
The animals had been denied food and medical care, according to Sgt. Bill O'Hare, of the Caledonia County Sheriff's Department, who responded to the scene.
'Stench was overwhelming'
Pauline Harpin, 70, and son Paul Harpin, 41, were charged with animal cruelty and cited into Vermont District Court on Sept. 8.
"The stench was overwhelming, between the urine and feces," said O'Hare. "As soon as you step in, you're covered head to toe with fleas."
On Wednesday, O'Hare and three deputies served a search warrant on the house after receiving a report of severe animal cruelty and threats allegedly made by Paul Harpin to shoot anyone who tried to take the animals.
Inside, they found neglected animals including a 4-year-old Labrador mix who had apparently been living amid filth and water in a basement since it was three months old, Guertin said.
"She's as starved for affection as she is food. She still has diarrhea," Guertin said.
One cat had an upper respiratory infection, and a tortoise was found with a deformed shell, according to Guertin.
Hazmat crew responds
Pauline Harpin, who was covered in flea bites, had to be decontaminated by a hazardous materials crew before being taken by ambulance to Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, where she was treated and released.
Guertin and a veterinarian who responded to the scene also had to be decontaminated, according to O'Hare.
The Harpins signed voluntary surrender forms allowing the live animals to be removed and adopted once they are rehabilitated. For now, the animals are in town custody.
The Harpins, meanwhile, are staying at a motel after being advised to stay out of the house until it is cleaned, according to O'Hare.
"They said they didn't know why their animals were dying. They were very angry we were taking the animals away from them, and they didn't offer any information. They simply said `We're taking care of them, but they're dying, there's nothing we can do.' The response they gave was very strange," O'Hare said.
Animal cruelty is punishable by up to $2,000 in fines and a year in jail.